Conductor Smack Down!
Conductor Smack Down!

This business is built on Universal Truths That Cannot Be Gainsaid even though we know they’re not all true.  You know them: “All conductors are domineering pricks”; “All orchestral musicians are sullen wannabes”; “All administrators are incompetent’; etc. etc.   Then there is Musical Dogma – “despite the fact that the vast majority of people think that their music is butt ugly we must proclaim the genius of the 2nd Viennese School”; or “The 9th Symphony of Beethoven is the greatest work of music ever, even though for many people it wouldn’t even make his own top 10 list.” Anyone who believes differently, or even dares to whisper otherwise in public, is branded with the Scarlet Letter.  Enough.  I will not facilitate the willful denial of this business anymore, and so I proclaim from the rooftops the following heresy – The 5th Symphony of Gustav Mahler is the most overrated piece in the history of Classical Music.  Cue lightning bolt.

I can’t wait to get the vicious comments from the Mahlerites.  How dare I say that Mahler isn’t the Second Coming of Christ??!!!??  Well, yes, he was Jewish, so he qualifies in that regard, but honestly I just don’t get where this adoration comes from.  I have three main objections to his music in general, all of which apply to the 5th symphony specifically:

1.  Get to the point already – This is fairly self-explanatory but I’m going to riff on it anyway.  The guy was just too long winded, wallowing in his own self pity and Victorian angst, and generally incapable of ending anything.  That in itself would be OK but the problem is he simply could not sustain musical pathos over these long periods of time.  When I hear the opening of #5 I get all excited because when it is played well it is truly one of the most dynamic moments in all of music.  But then I remember that this is going to go on, and on, and on, and on… and I feel like that poor psychiatrist on the TV show Monk – enough with the neurosis already!!!  Can’t we make some progress???!!!  Finish a phrase, give us a perfect authentic cadence, and move on fergodsakes.  The goal of therapy is to not need therapy anymore.

2.  You call this orchestration? Really? –  I have a theory: remove 1/3rd of the notes of any Mahler symphony and no one will notice.  This is based on the idea that at least 1/3rd of the notes on the page are unnecessary.  You do not need 5 clarinets, and you especially do not need them playing in unison (yes, I do realize I may be talking my wife out of a gig, and therefore talking myself onto the couch, but someone has to take one for the team).  You do not need a bazillion brass players. It’s just too loud and no matter how many times you throw them “The Hand” they’re just going to obliterate the woodwinds and the strings. I’m not claiming that they’re insensitive musicians.  What I’m saying is that basic acoustics will tell you that if you add one trumpet you’ve got to beef up your string section by at least 10 players to keep up, which may explain the whole “5 clarinet” thing. But pretty soon there isn’t going to be any room on stage and then we get into the whole stage extension problem. Yikes. And, honestly,  who gives a damn how many hammer strokes there are in the 6th symphony!!??

The problem is that many of the notes just don’t really matter because a good chunk of what is on the page will never be heard.  There’s simply too much other stuff going on.  One of the silliest moments in all of music occurs in the last movement of the 6th symphony.  There is a celesta chord which precedes (by about 1/2 a second) a triple forte entrance by the entire orchestra on that same chord. This celesta moment is either a mistake or it’s useless. This is indicative of the whole Mahlerian approach – a lot of pomp and very little circumstance.  I contrast this with Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis.  Now THAT’s orchestration.  There’s not a note out of place, the instruments are used to their extreme, but it all works and you can hear everything clearly.  Oh, and in a nod to #1 above I’d like to point out that Ravel manages to get his point across in a mere 16 minutes.  Hell, the whole Ravel interpretation of the entire story of D&C can be put on stage in under an hour, some 20 minutes shorter than the average performance of Mahler’s Symphony V.  Can you imagine Mahler tackling that storyline?  It would be longer than Roots (both mini-series combined). Come to think of it, it would be fun to have Mahler tackle Roots, eh?  Just getting through the “My Name is Kunta Kinte” aria would require overtime.

3.  Look at ME!!!!! – This is probably the one that drives me the most nuts.  The sweaty, overly-emotive, Master Conductor channeling his/her/it’s inner genius, who controls such amazing forces of music!!! Wields the magic baton to create such massive sound!!! Leaps tall scores in a single rehearsal!!!  Oy. The rise of Mahler coincides neatly with the rise of the (even more) self-centered conductor.  If I hear about one more conductor who is in the middle of their earth-shattering, ground-breaking, never been done before, order before midnight tonight Mahler cycle I am going to forget about my deep set pacifism and ask for a shotgun for Christmas.  I say to every young conductor what I say to every young pianist – I am not impressed with your amazing amazingness and your grand Über-technique and your incredible virtuosic virtuosity.  Go play Mozart. That’s real music.  If you can keep my interest for longer than 30 seconds then perhaps I’ll listen to you do something else.  But it probably won’t be Mahler V.

OK, look…… this is all my own opinion.  One of the best things about being a member of the specie homo sapien sapien is that we are allowed to have our own opinions.  What we should all strive to do is respect everyone elses opinions.  But we should also be honest, especially when it concerns Dogma. Dogma is bad for music, bad for religion, bad for everything.  Just ask anyone who tried to write classical music with a singable theme during the 1950s. The bottom line is that I just don’t like Mahler V.  It doesn’t speak to me and there is so much other music that does. I will happily go through the rest of my life without hearing this piece again, and rest assured that you will never see me conduct it. The funny thing is that one of these days I will conduct Mahler’s Symphony #1.  I have to remind myself constantly that I actually like that smphony.  Of course my Mahlerite friends tell me that it’s the least Mahlerian of all his symphonies.  Maybe that should tell me something.

6 thoughts on “Heresy”

  1. Gee, Ron’s is sincere and, Bill’sl is, how do I put it, funny. Although I like romantic music, it is mostly opera and art songs. I quite agree with Bill’s opinion. Mahler just has too many notes. It’s up there with Jane Austin, just too many words.

  2. Nice to hear from a fellow Mahler basher (!!) but “Symphonie Fantastique” is the most overrated piece in the history of classical music.

  3. Thanks to Larry for denouncing Berlioz… Now that I have that out of the way, I would like to share rather shortly what Mahler means to me. I remember hating his music. I could not stand all the “noise” that went on constantly. I cringed every time a motivic phrase was repeated and would start to scratch the walls with bare fingernails to get out of my own dorm room while in conservatory. For there is no reason a first movement has to be longer than a complete Brahms Symphony.
    Time proved to teach me the intricacies, nuances, and sheer emotion in his music. I began to listen to them, even buying multiple recordings of each symphony. This allowed me to hear the treatment that various conductors, orchestras, and recording technology shaded the experience of the work. I learned that Mahler was a product of his time. There are plenty of examples that match Mahler’s “over doneness” but we never hear about them because they lack the actual posterity.
    If I have made a point, I am glad; if not I apologize for my incoherent state of mind. But I am closing with a story:
    My senior year in conservatory I lost a very close friend. He was a tenor, about to open Orpheus in the Underworld and one week before his death I recorded his senior recital. His performance of Bach was astounding. It was all but certain that he would turn out to be the next great Bach tenor. On the day of his death, the school was in shatters. Before official word of classes canceled, we went on with our schedules. It was in a Romantic Symphonies course that I truly discovered Mahler. There we sat silently in the room waiting for the professor to begin. The professor thought very highly of my recently deceased friend and was worried about choosing words. He finally spoke, “So let us just begin. I will not say much, but we will go with the syllabus and listen to the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th.” That single experience was too much to bare. The entire room, including the professor was in tears. If those reactions are from a composer’s overindulgence, then please keep writing. If it was purely circumstantial, then the music served its ultimate purpose: to move ones emotions.
    So let’s have Mahler touch those it reaches. For those of us who cannot be moved by his music, silence yourself and let it be. Pick on something else, because chances are, that will be sacred to somebody too.

  4. @Joseph Edwards – Thanks for your story. It is a shame that one has to go through something like that. It’s good that you have that connection to ANY piece of music. There are so many folks out there who do not ever get that kind of connection. (I know some professional musicians who have lost the connection entirely yet still play for the money).

    To me, Mahler is good (I’m a brass player) but just like Bill says, too much. Just get on with the piece and say what you want to say. I had a similarly emotional experience with Tchaik. 5 but now all I hear is repetitive phrases that annoy the bejeebus out of me. (Horn solo in 2nd mvmt still gets me though, even as Chet Baker or Glenn Miller arrangements).

  5. Cmon Bill, if you knew anything you would know the best moments in Mahler are when there are only a few musicians playing! Dare I say Mahler wrote the best chamber music ever…even better than Mozart?

    I don’t see how any conductor can be allowed to live without having Mahler in his repertoire? Can’t get enough of that Cuban Overture…not!

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